The Ancient Persian City Of Susa Built By King Hushang

The remains of a metropolis in Iran have revealed that, in 4,000 years, 13 cities were superimposed and 15 different languages used. When did Susa Begin? Was it the capital of an empire? How did Susa fall?

The ruins of the great ancient city of Susa, Iran
The ruins of the great ancient city of Susa, Iran

Standing out against the horizon on the baked plain of Khuzistas, in southwest Iran, looms the great bulk of Susa. Here, beneath a series of mounds lie the remains of the once-great city which controlled important routes stretching from ancient Mesopotamia eastward through the Zagros Mountains.

Persian tradition claims that Susa was the first city in the world, built by the legendary King Hushang who discovered how to make fire with steel and flint. It is certainly one of the oldest. Urban life was thriving there at the beginning of the fourth millennium BC when its craftsman was producing some of the world's most elegant pottery - slim beakers decorated with stylized birds and hunting dogs.

The Thousand Year War

By about 2500 BC, Susa had become the capital of the kingdom of the Elamites, vigorous but enigmatic people related culturally to the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. For 1,000 years, Elam was at loggerheads with the city-states of Mesopotamia. But in about 2350 BC, Susa became part of the world's first major empire when it fell to Sargon the Great of Akkad.

When Sargon's empire fell, the prosperity of the Elamites was renewed. Around 2100 BC, they beautified their capital with a holy precinct containing a temple and ziggurat of Inshushinak, 'Lord of Susa', the god of storm and the patron god of the city whose emblem was the zebu or humped-back bull.

But the tides of power in the Mesopotamian city-states continued to shift. The Babylonians seized Susa around 1000 BC and crippled its power. The Assyrians swept into Elam around 645 BC at the heels of the conquering Assurbanipal who burned Susa to the ground and took the kings of Elam home in chains to drag his chariots through the streets of Nineveh.

The mounds of Susa were rediscovered in 1850 and identified as Susa of classical times by the British Archaeologist William Loftus. The site consists of four mounds: the Acropolis, the Apadana, the Royal City, and the Artisan's Town. The earliest of 13 different settlements was on the Acropolis where the foundations of a temple from the fourth millennium were found. Here, too, was the site of the main royal Elamite buildings, among them the temple and ziggurat of Inshushinak, crowned with the bronze 'Horns' looted by Assurbanipal.

The Susa of the Elamites has all but disappeared. An idea of their city at its height lies 32km (20mi) to the southeast where King Untash-Gal, in about 1250 BC, built the royal city named after himself: Dur-Untashi, now known as Choga Zanbil. This was one of the most ambitious building schemes ever envisaged in the ancient world. Inside huge ramparts and stone walls stood temples of the many Elamite gods and, towering overall, a great ziggurat dedicated to Inshushinak.

The Waters Of Choaspes

Although Assurbanipal had put Susa to the torch, the city flowered again. Cyrus the Great (d.530 BC), who ruled from the Aegean sea to the River Oxus, made it the capital of his Persian Empire. He chose Susa because it stood conveniently between the two halves of his empire, but perhaps also because it lay beside the River Kharka, famous for its purity.

Ancient pottery from Susa
Ancient pottery from Susa

The Greek historian Herodotus relates that whenever Cyrus went on an expedition, he took with him 'water from the Choaspes (Kharka) ... whereof and of none other he drinks. This water of the Choaspes is boiled, and very many four-wheeled wagons drawn by mules carry it in silver vessels, following the king whithersoever he goes. 'Whitersoever' might be a great distance. The energy of Cyrus and the Achaemenian dynasty he founded was prodigious. They would spend the winter at Susa, the spring 800km (500mi) away in the ceremonial capital of Persepolis, and summer 1,280km (800mi) from Persepolis in the cool mountains of Ecbatana. From Ecbatana back to Susa was another 480 km (300mi). They would travel in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, though some of the harshest landscapes in the world, with all the elaborate paraphernalia of the court - not least the pure waters of Choaspes.

The Achaemenians were not unnaturally great road builders. Their royal road from Susa to Sardis in Asia Minor covered more than 2,563km (1,600mi) with 111 post stations for changing horses. It was patrolled by military detachments while a relay of courtiers maintained a swift postal service for the monarch - a journey which at a pinch could be made in a week.

The Great Palace Of King Darius

In 517 BC, Cyrus the Great's next-but-one successor, Darius I, began to build a glorious palace on the Apadana mound, recording the construction on a clay tablet: 'I constructed this palace... And the ground that was dug out... and the bricks that were moulded - they were the people of Babylon who did the work. The wood called cedar was brought from a mountain called Lebanon. The people of Assyria brought it up to Babylon and the people of Karkha (in Anatolia) and Ionia (Greece) brought it from Babylon to the land of the Susians.' From every corner of the empire and beyond came men and materials. Caravans arrived bearing gold - with Medes and Egyptians to work it - ivory, silver, ebony, lapis lazuli, and turquoise.

No wonder the Bible simply calls Susa 'Shushan the Palace'. Here was set the romantic story of Esther, and in the Book of Esther, its luxury is described in vivid detail. As the Persian Empire expanded to encompass parts of Greece, the glories of Susa became as well known to the Greeks as to the Hebrews. After Alexandra the Great had defeated the Persian King Darius III in 331 BC, he marched on Susa where he discovered fabulous riches. After seven years of conquest which took him across the River Indus to India, he returned and at Susa announced plans for uniting Greece and Persia into one great empire. He made a beginning by himself marrying Darius' daughter, Stateira and holding a mass wedding of 10,000 Greeks to Persian wives.

After Alexander's death in 323 BC, Susa dwindled to a provincial capital. Later it was a Christian bishopric and the Sasanian king Shahpur II, a fervent Zoroastrian, had it trampled underfoot by several hundred elephants. The Mongols delivered the final blow in the 13th century, and Susa thereafter remained a dead city, left to the wind which transformed it in time into just another Middle Eastern Mound.


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